Book Review: Grendel by John Gardner

Years ago, I heard there was a book written from the point of view of Grendel, the monster in the epic tale Beowulf. I put it on my “to be read” list and eventually remembered it when another Beowulf spin-off was published (it is now on my summer to-read list). I figured, I could do a little Beowulf reading party.

I started this book a while ago. It’s less than 200 pages. I started and finished several books in the interim. I did finish this book, finally, but it’s more of a scholarly pursuit and not one that I would recommend reading for pleasure. To be fair, there are moments of brilliance in this book, and I could totally see teaching this side-by-side with Beowulf for an AP or college class. But for a fun read, which I had been hoping for, it was a little difficult to get through (I did discuss this novel with a fellow English teacher, who agreed that it took forever to read, despite it being so short).

What I really enjoyed was Grendel’s voice and depth of thought. There was so much more to him than a bloodthirsty monster: he listened to the humans and seemed both fascinated and tormented by their ability to weave stories (and in doing so, change people’s minds/opinions about things—even Grendel felt himself being pulled in). I also enjoyed the dragon, which seemed to be a manifestation of universal consciousness and all knowledge. The dragon tormented Grendel with knowledge that everything that will happen has essentially happened already—weaving in the idea of fate or predestination into the mix.

What I did not enjoy was the meandering nature of the work. We were distanced from humans, so their “petty” goals (conquer or avoid being conquered) seemed unimportant and cliché. (And that was the point.) But Grendel didn’t seem to have a strong enough goal for me. He seemed to allow himself to be pulled—he reacted to humans and was encouraged or enraged by them, but he didn’t seem to have a strong goal like a typical protagonist. In that sense, the author certainly played with the structure of a narrative, pulling us into metacognitive territory. And again, there are moments of brilliance there, but I suppose I was just expecting more of a fun read.

I did enjoy Grendel’s voice, his humor, his honest assessment of humans. Here is a favorite quote: “He was an idiot. I could crush him like a fly, but I held back.” If you’re looking for intelligence and wit with some (dark) humor woven in, this is a good read if you have read Beowulf.

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